Media’s Influence on Identity
Popular culture is the most dynamic driving force behind the human interpretation of society. Through it, people develop social expectations and then project those expectations on to others. In western society, one of the more ironic factors is the source of popular culture. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that public opinion doesn’t exist, and that it is just a farce formulated by the economically elite of society to further the long lasting capitalist hold they have on the workings of western civilization (1987). He credits popular culture as being a product of the financially superior, which he refers to as cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1987). In his theory these heads of capitalism dictate popular culture to mold people into more efficient valuable consumers. This author will asses examples from society to test this theory and find whether individuals dictate their identities, or it’s done by popular culture.
Popular culture’s interpretation of American cities, members of particular social classes, cultures, and historical events all have been heavily influenced by the media, specifically film. Often, Hollywood’s depictions of these aspects of daily life are taken as authentic interpretations, when in actuality they have exaggerated the truth, or just exploited stereotypes. The result of this is a dual reality, one that is exact and immediate, and one that is in the mind. When one thinks of New York, they might picture hot dogs, organized crime, the Statue of Liberty, and people with thick accents. When one thinks of L.A., they are more liable to think of movie stars, luxurious cars, and shallow egos. These are typical characteristics assigned to these cities by a majority of Americans, many of whom may never have even visited New York or California. This contrast is the result of Hollywood interpretation of America.
The most noted and obsessively received film depicting California life is the film Clueless. The film can very easily be proclaimed as a contemporary version of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. Both of the main characters are high class snobs who pride themselves in their matchmaking abilities. Emma Woodhouse is a member of an upscale society in nineteenth century England, while Cher Horowitz lives in wealthy, upscale Beverly Hills U.S.A. Both Cher and Emma are among the culturally elite in their societies. Cher’s father is a litigation lawyer in Los Angeles the most affluent city in America, and Cher is arguably the most popular girl in her school. Just like Jane Austen’s novel was a depiction of upscale elitists life in London during the Victorian era, Clueless depicts the same socioeconomic class only with regards to Beverly Hills in the 90’s. This can directly be connected to Austen’s description of Emma in which she describes Emma as, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition (5). The film’s reception was so popular it inadvertently resulted in further establishing the archetype of the valley girl (which is most synonymous with snobby, wealthy, Barbie-like California teenagers) as an American stereotype. America’s historical infatuation with this stereotypical image can most prevalently be seen with the notorious popularity of women like Marilyn Monroe, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, and Britney Speares. The ideals exploited and enforced by women like this has resulted in the driving force behind the stigma that California, specifically Los Angeles is over populated with superficial plastic individuals. This is a persona that has developed over the years and solidified with the film Clueless but it is certainly a change from the classic magical mystique of Hollywood’s heyday in the 1950’s. Over the past 50 years, the common American view of L.A. lifestyle has grown from being glamorous to superficial, and film has a large part to do with this change.
Since the creation of American cinema, Hollywood has had a significant influence on developing the cultural mystique and International infatuation that has become synonymous with New York. There is no New York director that has more authentically imbedded New York ideals into popular culture than Martin Scorsese. The auteur theory protests that the director’s films reflect the particular director’s personal creative vision, as though he or she were the sole author of the work. Classified as a contemporary auteur he has carved a niche as a New York Hollywood director. Auteur is the French word for author. There are many film producers who have notably been credited for having auteur like influences on film projects. Auteurism is most immediately connected with French New Wave. It has also had a major impact on film criticism, since it was erected by film director and critic Francois Truffaut in 1954. This of course, was a connection made most commonly in the mid 1950’s to 60’s before American filmmakers embodied the theory. The most notable aspect of directors given the auteur title is that that they tend to produce work that is very culturally significant and has an influence on popular culture. He has presented his genuine Italian New York culture in such an authentic way that, for so long, it is unclear whether his work is a reflection of the city, or the city is a reflection of his work.
Martin Scorsese is the perfect example of an auteur because he uses the same themes throughout all of his work, such as: Catholicism, virgin/whore conflict, redemption, ethnic pride, and of course crime culture. On top of this, he supports all of his plots with a very eclectic soundtracks. The cinematography he uses is very similar in all of his films. He is also know for using some of the same actors in his films, specifically Robert Deniro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Of his large body of work, Mean Street symbolizes the blue print to the archetype that has become his unique style (Raymond, 2002). He utilizes the fluid motion of the camera with each shot, while making the mis-en-scene of each frame valuable to the plot of the story. It was his first film and it contains all of the key characteristics with which he modeled his style.
Scorsese has a visual style that relies on the city of New York. Mean Street embodies the culture that comes with this location. In the film, the audience is subjected to getting to know characters who spend their time womanizing, hustling, fighting, and drinking. Centered on the struggles of four men in their mid-20’s and all residents of Little Italy, who are working their way up the rungs of gangster culture, some are loan sharks, and some are just plain hoods. Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is an irresponsible hood who borrows money from loan sharks that he never intends to pay back, and Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is the nephew of the mafia boss Giovani (Cesar Danova). Charlie’s only aspiration is to run his own restaurant. Tony (David Proval) is a big friendly guy who runs the neighborhood bar; Michael (Richard Romanus) is a small-time loan shark who tends to rip off Brooklyn adolescents. Mean Street is based on specific events Scorsese saw almost regularly while he was brought up in Little Italy (Raymond, 2002).
The influence this auteur’s work has had on America is multifaceted. On one hand, he depicts an American crime subculture, which though often overlooked actually set the foundation for big city society and has some initial connection with most big business in America today. On the other hand, his work has been credited for causing many of the stereotypes which haunt Italian Americans throughout the United States. His films depict characters who interact with a dialect that is authentic to New York, but not to all New Yorkers. The majority of Scorsese’s most popular films represent the criminal underbelly of New York, because it is the image of the city that people find most believable. This is an example of the prejudice ideology that forms from media outlets like film.
Prejudice ideology is an inherent part of the social world, but in western culture its effects are more apparent in film and on the television. The media’s depiction of ethnic groups, women and religious factions has a dynamic influence on the way in which these groups are perceived within their communities, and the orchestrates behind these depictions are as connected to the public as the stereotypes themselves. This author intends to show the dynamic influence the media has on public perception of minorities and how their depictions are more closely related to capitalist ideology than any genuine cultural understanding.
In Richard Dyer’s essay The White Man’s Muscle, he talks about stereotypes that have been enforced connecting as far back as the Greek era, and that now dominate film and television basically promoting the superiority of white masculinity.
Body hair is animalistic; hairlessness connotes striving above nature. The climax of Gli amori di Ercole has Hercules fighting a giant ape, who has previously behaved in a King Kong-ish way towards Hercules’s beloved Dejanira, stroking her hair and when she screams making as if to rape her; close-ups contrast Hercules’s smooth, hairless muscles with the hairy limbs of this racist archetype. (Dyer)
Here Dyer points out how the uppermost essence of masculinity is equated with shaven white muscle, through its very contrast to that of hair apes, who are historically associated with blackness. He acknowledges the racist aspects of this archetype, but also gives notice to the private boys’ club-like tradition that has formed from this prejudice. This same ideal of exclusion is expressed in Gamy Robson’s Millwall Football Club: Masculinity, Race and Belonging in which the author points out how Millwall Football Club is a devout fan base-community that excludes those who aren’t born within it and those of different races. In western culture, muscular bodies are associated with much leisure time, discipline, and affluence. Dyer also makes the Christian connection that a muscular body connotes pointing out the ideal of finding salvation or purity through the experience of pain. He points out that historically body building culture has been an equal opportunity medium when he says,
Bodybuilding as an activity has a relatively good track record in terms of racial equality. From the 1950s on, non-white men – and especially those of African descent – became major figures in bodybuilding competitions. Yet the dominant images of the built body remain white. Kenneth Dutton (1995: 232) points out that black bodybuilders are rare on the cover of Muscle and Fitness, the bodybuilding magazine now most responsible for establishing and promulgating the image of the sport. (Dyer)
Within the world of contemporary bodybuilding, this view has been greatly contrasted considering the current popularity top African American bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman, but even still, unless a particular bodybuilder is professional the chance of them finding their way on the cover of a magazine without being white is still sparse. Thus pointing out that, bodybuilding culture is one of great prejudice. Dyer states that the culture itself in western society ideologically is connected as far back as the Greek era, when they believed that to improve the physical structure through body building was to bring it that much closer to divinity. While bodybuilding ideologically separates the white man from the beast, the black man is the beast. This creates the misconception that to be white is to be masculine and to be black is to be animalistic.
Dyer identifies this theme of white superiority and masculinity being plaid out in modern day film as he connects it with Arnold Schwarzenegger and his character in the film the Terminator.
Schwarzenegger’s films contain nothing so agonised, and he has been cast as a machine in the Terminator films (1984 and 1991) rather than as a machine’s opponent. Schwarzenegger, as a multiple Mr Olympia winner, is always already a champion physique;… Schwarzenegger’s body is simply massive, his characteristic facial expression genial, his persona one of Teutonic confidence; (Dyer)
Here we see that Schwarzenegger in his role as the Terminator embodies all of the ideals praised by males and promoted within popular western society. His militant and machine-like persona represents the upper echelon of masculinity. The irony is that while this film further enforces the misogynistic misconceived notions of the meaning of manliness, maintaining the edgy tradition common of the science fiction genre, it breaks stereotypes pertaining to females.
The Terminator launched the career of former body builder and current governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but more importantly, it is the quintessential science-fiction film, countering many contemporary stereotypes. A young woman named Sarah Connor is hunted down by a robotic killer, who has traveled back in time to kill her unborn child. In the future war between the Robots and humans, it is believed Sarah Connor will give birth to a heroic general in the fight for the human race. A character named Reese initially is sent back from the future to protect Sarah Connor. Unbeknownst to either of them, he becomes the father of the baby he is sent to protect. Reese is still mortal, and continuously reminded of this fact when confronting the Terminator. Sarah Connor is mortal, but she is also destined to be a great war hero. Sarah Connor’s character is empowered in this film and Reese is actually effeminized; by this, I mean that Reese is actually the weaker of the two. In the greatest measure of manliness against the ultimate destroying machine, Connor manages to survive; and in the end, she is the one who kills the Terminator. While Reese, dead, has failed as a protector and the only purpose he served was to produce offspring. The man and the woman switch roles in this way. This is a prime example of the evolving nature of female representation in the media. In this case, one might be prone to believe that western audiences are more comfortable seeing a masculine woman than letting go of dyer’s ideal of the white muscle man and seeing a black model of supreme masculinity. The character Sarah Connor serves as a model archetype for the new age woman, who is able to be strong like a man, and still be a pinnacle example of womanhood. Her character also represents a pivotal point for women in the film industry.
The heroine in cinema has come a long way since the origin of the medium. It can be argued that this is a direct reflection of societal change. The performing arts have evolved from not allowing blacks, or women to perform, to having minorities in lead roles where they play everyman/woman characters. From the villainously empowering days of the Femme fatale, to the current science fiction roles in which women save the world without any male assistance, the female in cinema is on the verge of equal empowerment. This is most apparently true of those female celebrities who have established themselves as capable to play a broad range of roles. Actresses like Angelina Jolie, Demi Moor and Sigourney Weaver have played everything from action adventure heroines to pregnant mothers. These women have contributed to the tradition of expanding societal expectations of women through film; but as these signifying lines of identity expand self identification within society has a tendency of only becoming more confusing. Though these actress have created alternative identities for women to model after, as Claire Dwyer reveals in her essay Contested Identities, the real path for female to negotiate her identity is not as cut and dry as it is depicted in the movies.
Dwyer focuses on the Muslim woman’s struggle to establish identity within British culture. As Dwyer argues, young Muslim women seek to define their own identities and resist dominant representations of `Muslim Women’… the articulation of their own identities requires the negotiation of dominant representations and stereotypes and a challenge to existing discourses (Dwyer). Traditionally for outsiders of particular societies, stereotypes are projected onto them that are misconceived and complicating cross cultural understanding. The author credits the media as a very important factor to the challenging of existing discourses; but, she also acknowledges the unique social conflict pertaining to the particular circumstance of the Muslim women. Dwyer feels these women find themselves trapped in between two cultures, one of Asian expectations, and the other of the British ideals. Both of these pertain to their identities in the community as Muslim women. This is a prejudice whose specifics are reliant on location, but tends to produce the same results across communities. If they do not wish to adhere to the criteria set out for them by what Dwyer calls the dominant representations of Muslim Women, then they may find themselves subject to exclusion. A direct comparison to the plight of the Muslim woman searching for identity in Britain can be made to that of the American Black in the south.
In John Fiske’s assessment Television Culture, he analyzes the nature of what makes popular T.V. He concludes that the shows that succeed in gaining popularity tend to have many symbols and plot lines promoting multiple possible meanings. He also states that these plots remain within a duality of containment and resistance (1987). The story lines are contained within the reality of being tools used to market consumer products. The resistance is found in the fact that audiences relate more to topics, or themes that appear to rebellious against the capitalist system. In all reality it is foolish to think that there is any genuine rebellion being displayed on the air, because it might result in the condemnation of the very people funding the Networks. This idea basically revolves around the fact that television producers, who are viewed as the upper class and political elite, are expected to produce material that correspond with popular culture. This material that the elite minority culture produces for the popular culture contradicts elitist ideals but allows the status quo to remain intact. This means the political elite can only remain the elite so long as they humor the beliefs and ideals of their less powerful but more dominant counterparts. The rules Fiske establishes for television shows can very easily be applied to the media. They present the media as a tool being used to prey on the wants and needs of different cultures. This is directly compatible with Bourdieu’s theory. This poses the question of whether his theory is ever contradicted.
A core example of citizens countering Bourdieu’s perception of public opinion is the Civil Rights movement in America. It was a much needed shift in popular culture and eventually governmental law. A contemporary example of this can be seen in Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11. In the article Al Qaeda, Terrorism, and Military Commissions’, Ruth Wedgwood proves that though most American citizens consider terrorism to be a federal and national problem, it is just as much a local concern. Al Qaeda’s published doctrine maintains that there are no innocent civilians in Western society (Wedgwood, pg2)… She later goes on to analyze the psychological foundation they use to form their tenet. She says,…this tenet leads it to [committing] the gravest of international crime[s] (Wedgwood, pg2). All of these qualities impose a large enough threat to individual human ideals and popular culture that a public arises from a nonentity. We also see this with protests. Here is where the weakness lies in Bourdieu’s theory. Despite this, we still see the prevention of certain liberal up risings maintained by systems of control, like racial, sexual and religious prejudice, or even class prejudice through the myth of the American Dream. All of these aspects are exploited within national cultures by the media to designate individuals into predisposed identities.
In sum, through assessing the media and film influence on popular culture, it becomes very clear that there is very little control on the part of individuals to shape this ideology. Except for examples like the Civil Rights Movement and support for Hurricane Katrina, most massive shifts in cultural ideals tend to almost be dictated by the media and capitalist contributions. In response to the question, do we build ourselves from everyday matters of popular culture, I think it is auteurs like Scorsese, and films like Clueless that dictate the conditions of popular culture. These same conditions are adhered to within our society almost subconsciously and they are inescapable. It is a natural tendency to adopt the mannerisms and speech patterns of those in your social community. This is the very way babies learn how to communicate. This natural fact of life is what self awareness relies upon. One’s true self can not be identified by the language they speak, or even the mannerisms they have; the core of one’s true identity is independent of their chosen method of communication. And yet, in order for people to feel comfortable around us, we must communicate with them in a way they can relate, or at least with which they are familiar. This is why popular culture is so valuable, because it allows people to communicate a family of ideals in a immediate and subtly indirect way. People adopt the ideals of popular culture to put on personas that they best feel will help them interact with one another. The more films and television break taboos and redefine social archetypes, the more options people have to embody, but these are all still identities that are based on fake personas. It is an inescapable cycle.
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